By Paras Ali

ISLAMABAD: The sitting government, which claims to have achieved a significant growth in the information technology and telecom sector, itself is bent upon vitiating all the research and development activities and initiatives once taken by the Universal Service Fund (USF) as being helpless against the political influence the Fund has approved an advertisement campaign on electronic media for the PPP regimes image building involving a hefty amount of Rs. 120 million which was entirely against the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules, says ISPAK.

“The Rs. 120 million spent by the USF on the governments media campaign was a complete violation of the allocation of toltal Rs. 152 million supposed to be spent purely on highlighting the propagation of USF funded projects,” ISPAK Convener Wahaj-us-Siraj disclosed this while talking to the Technology Times here.

He revealed that according to the USF Board of Directors decision, only Rs. 66 million out of total allocated Rs. 152 million were to be spent on electronic media for the promotion of USF activities.

The sources said that senior executives of the Fund had earlier disowned the campaign on its behalf and later approved thus making the USF role controversial as many eyebrows have raised over the impartial and apolitical role of the Fund in initiating telecom services include basic telephony, broadband internet, infrastructure for these services, and Community Tele-centers, in the country.

According to the sources, violating the rules and regulations the IT Ministry in April last had engaged a Lahore-based advertisement company for the launch of this campaign on behalf of the Funds Board of Directors. However, the Fund raised objections and disowned it as the advertisement had carried the USF logo, saying that, advertising agency is using USFs logo without seeking USFs prior permission. The letter USF had sent to the advertisement company through its legal advisor is available with the Technology Times.

“However, later the Fund approved the image-building campaign as well as the amount of Rs. 120 million for it by entirely ignoring the rules and regulations framed for the use of the capital fund,” an official on condition of anonymity disclosed to this scribe.

ISPAK, which is a representative body of ISPs and broadband operators who are contributors to USF, on May 5 and 7, 2012 had sent two letters to the IT ministry highlighting the misuse of USF fund. However, the ministry in response served a legal notice to it from USF both staging contradictory reasons and allegations.

When contacted, USF Chief Executive Officer, Riaz Asher Siddiqui, denied the allegations of all permissible rules violations saying directives have been properly followed and there are no irregularities involved in it.

However, the documents available speak the other side of the story.

According to the Companies Ordinance 1984 Section 197, the company registered under this ordinance shall not contribute any amount to any political party or for any political purpose to any individual or body and violation of this rule may lead to punishment (imprisonment or fine or both).

The USF was established under Section 42 of the said ordinance with an aim of bringing the focus of telecom operators towards rural population and increase the level of telecom penetration significantly in rural areas, improving the broadband penetration through effective and fair utilization of the fund. Under a rule, all telecom service provider companies in the country are bound to donate 1.5 per cent of adjusted revenues to the Fund for launching telephone, fibre and broadband projects in underserved and unserved areas.

Presently around Rs. 40 billion donated by the telecom companies are lying with the USF and the political government has repeatedly made attempts to spend the amount the way as has been done in the case of budgetary allocations of other research departments.

It is to be mentioned here that the MoITT during the last year had witnessed repeated change of its secretaries as well as other appointments on political grounds, completely politicising the USF and ICT RandD Fund. This critical situation had caused closure or suspension of a number of development projects in the country, forcing the telecom companies to write a letter to the ministry threatening to halt their funds in case the USF was not revived with resuming the development projects.

IT experts are of the strong view that the USF must expand its role without involving into any scam or controversy, otherwise, the dream of making Pakistan a developed IT state would remain elusive.

It is noteworthy to mention here that USF has made a vast progress under the present government. USF has provided basic telephony and data services in more than 3,600 un-served and under-served muzas. Broadband services have been provided in 256 new 2nd and 3rd tier cities/towns.

USF also providing more than 400,000 broadband connections while establishing more than 1000 Educational Broadband Centers (EBCs) and 300 Community Broadband Centers (CBCs).

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